"New Middle East Realities in the Wake of September 11th"
Remarks by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres
at a National Press Club Morning Newsmaker

The National Press Club, Washington, D.C.
Monday, October 22, 2001

FM PERES: Ambassador, ladies and gentlemen, I haven’t been here since September 11th, but following the events from Israel, permit me to say that all of us were moved to our bones by the way that the American people, its leaders did take this terrible experience, this unbelievable horror; the dignity in the face of victims, the unity in a state of tears, the determination in meeting the unknown and unprecedented test. It shows more than at any other time not only the American greatness in economy, technology, administration, but American depth in its souls, in its relations. If I may, so for the first time I felt that you have not just the United States but a united state, a sense of brotherhood and togetherness that one can rarely see in history by such a large nation.

I know you didn’t invite it, and I know that none of us can escape it. The war that America is now waging concerns all people all around the world and every person individually. It’s war that if it will not be won, we shall be unable to walk, to work, to fly, to commerce, to remain free, to build buildings, to drink water, to breathe fresh air. It’s uncompromising, unforgiving, no way to postpone it, and I know it’s extremely challenging, because it’s also unprecedented.

Never in history did such a confrontation on such a scale take place. We were used to wars of nations or national coalitions, and now we have discovered that we now have not only armies without enemies, but dangers without armies. The armies we have had were for a different challenge, and the challenge that we are facing today calls for new strategies, and new compositions, and new strengths and organization. I think it is also pertinent to the traditional division of the world – no longer west and east, south and north; no longer divisions by color, religion, race, tradition, prejudices, but a clear camp that wants to secure the safety and freedom of all people, and a camp which permits itself killing in the name of terrible justice disguised by a religious explanation.

Bin Laden was appointed by nobody, has to answer to no government. He is free of any code of justice or values – a self- appointed killer without any restriction and without any reason. Let me say from our small place – the Middle East – bin Laden says that he wants to help the Palestinians. He’s the greatest danger to the Palestinians. The Palestinians do not need a bin Laden; they do not need bombs; they do not need bullets or knives, because the story that the Palestinians are fighting for their liberation is totally unfounded.

We have offered the Palestinians full liberty: all of the land, a position in Jerusalem, without any bin Laden and without any bomb. And even if there is a remaining difference of 1 or 2 percent, this doesn’t justify killing thousands of women and men and children in New York or in Washington or elsewhere – no justification.

We gave back all the land, all the water, all the oil to Egypt without a bin Laden. We gave back to Jordan all the land, all the water without a bin Laden. We withdrew from Lebanon without him. We offered the Syrians all their land back. A killer finds it easy to be a liar and to cheat. There’s no room to take his claims seriously, as there is no room to forgive his criminal actions in any way.

We were used to crime in the streets of the cities; now we have crime in the winds of the globe. The crime in the cities cannot be forgiven, and the global crime cannot be forgiven.

To conclude my remarks, may I say that we feel lucky that the United States is heading this campaign. There is not a country that has such an enormous intellectual capacity, in thousands of academic institutes, universities, colleges, professors, not a country that has such an organizational capacity, and never in history was there a superpower that was ready to send their own boys to fight abroad in order to bring to other nations freedom and security and hope, without any claim for itself.

The United States won wars, took over land, never kept anything for itself, handing back to Japan an improved Japan, to Germany an improved Germany, drew up the Marshall Plan to send food to the needy, to forgive debts to the people in trouble. I think that all of humanity owes the United States for her contribution. And now that she took such a terrible pain on the homeland, all of us should be as well with the United States. The war you are conducting is our war. The struggle is our struggle. And your victory will mean a victory for the rest of humanity. Thank you.

Q: Mr. Foreign Minister, how do you see the risk of this conflict increasing instability in the Middle East, the risk that some governments could be replaced by pro- bin Laden, Muslim governments?

FM PERES: That is what the conflict is not for. We are not fighting against a Palestinian state; on the contrary, we are for a Palestinian state. We don’t want to downfall the Palestinian autonomy; on the contrary, we would like to see them successful. We don’t want the Palestinian people to suffer; on the contrary, we would like them to enjoy freedom and prosperity. And we are not conducting a personal war against Arafat.

The real problem, as we see it, is that Arafat has to decide about his own leadership. We cannot decide instead of him. Today, as things are, he is heading a Palestinian people that has four different armed groups, each of them shooting on their own – for their own reasons in different directions, and actually killing any chance for tranquility and hope. Arafat doesn’t have to sell Israel, he has to sell his own destiny.

There is no leader who is unwilling to exercise leadership that remains a leader. People are asking, is Arafat capable? Nobody knows the answer. The real question, is Arafat willing? And he has to take the risk. If he will do it, then we can return to talk and negotiations and give a better future to the Palestinians, to Israel and the rest of the Middle East. This is, in my judgment, the heart of the problem.

Q: Mr. Minister, there doesn’t seem to be any question where you stand and where the State Department stands. You basically want to go back to January and make the kind of concessions that the Barak government and the Clinton government were prepared to make. But a lot has happened since January. So I wonder, are you confident that the Israeli people will be willing? And you keep talking about security, but frankly, I think more than security is involved, particularly when you talk about Jerusalem. Do you think Mr. Sharon and do you think the Israeli people are ready to give up that much?

And you use this phrase – I never heard it before; you used it last night, you used it again today, so I’m sure you mean it – that the Palestinians ought to have a position in Jerusalem. What is that? Where is that – on the range from a ceremonial office to half of the Jewish capital. What are you prepared to give up?

FM PERES: I’m not sure that we are already in negotiations about Jerusalem. First of all, I believe the whole of Israel is united about peace – the camp of Mr. Sharon, other political camps. The real problem that Israel is facing is whether we have a partner. The peace camp in Israel lost considerably, not because it gave up its hope for peace, but because it became uncertain about the readiness of Arafat.

Let me say about Jerusalem, first of all, I have to be candid. There are many views about Jerusalem, not one. But we’re all united that the issue of Jerusalem should be dealt with in the political negotiations, not before.

But with your permission, may I say there is a paradox in Jerusalem. In fact, there is an arrangement in Jerusalem. The difficulty, really, is to define it. What is the factual situation? The Palestinians control their mosque on the Temple Mount. There is no Israeli that will enter the mosque or the court of the mosque on the Temple Mount, nor policeman. We have police separating the Temple Mount from the rest of Jerusalem. Actually, on Fridays we have tens of thousands of Muslim prayers coming there, undisturbed. The task of the police is to prevent them from invade Jerusalem. That’s all. Which, by the way, they don’t do.

In the old city, we have Jewish quarters and Jewish life, and Palestinian quarters and Palestinian life, and non-Palestinians, too. There is no chaos there, and there is no shooting there. The real problem is how to define it.

The difference between politics and religion is that politics is the art of compromise; religion is the commitment to reject compromises. But in fact, we have, in the very same place, at the very same time, the muezzin, the Muslim cantor calling for prayers, the Jewish hazan, our cantor, the churches, the bells, and while the music is pluralistic, it is not necessarily conflicting. Everybody can pray to Heaven according to his prayer book.

I’m saying it because it is not such under tremendous pressure, and I personally believe that you cannot solve a problem unless it reaches a majority. You can always have the date of birth of a problem, but you cannot have the wedding time of the group. And I feel I am not sure that Jerusalem is a really mature for any decision as the refugees. And that is the reason why I’ve advised our former Prime Minister Barak not to ask for the finality of the conflict, because I felt it may raise the issue of Jerusalem and the refugees in the center, and discover that we don’t have a solution, an agreed solution, because every solution must be agreed.

So I believe we have to solve the other problems first of all: borders, the Palestinian state, the relations between us – and with the rest of it, to be more patient because things that we were doing today looked like impossible to do 15 years ago. And this is my real answer.

Q: Mr. Foreign Minister, as an outstanding harbinger of peace, how would you like to pursue the message of peace now in this thing of terrorism in your region and elsewhere in the globe?

FM PERES: What is now adopted as a common document is the Mitchell plan. The Mitchell plan is not only a political plan, but also an orbit with a sequence. There are things that we have to do first and things that we have to do later.

The first thing we have to achieve is a cease-fire. Once we shall achieve a cease-fire, then the second station will be confidence-building measures, and the third station will be the beginning of political negotiations. Our attempt is to achieve the cease-fire. As far as we are concerned, we are willing and ready to have a total and complete and uncompromised cease-fire all of other places. Arafat said that he is also for a cease-fire, but he hasn’t done what he promised, and what he has to do. Arafat himself used to say, "I don’t ask for the moon." He doesn’t have to arrest the moon, he has to arrest 10 or 15 troublemakers who are really initiating most of the terror. And he has to have his police force, which is 50,000 or 60,000 people strong, to prevent the incursion of suicide-bombers into Israel. And he has to delegitimize, to outlaw the other armed groups who don’t take his orders. And that’s what we are pressing.

Now, may I say, Arafat is sensitive more than any other Palestinian leader to his legitimate position in the rest of the world. I believe that if the United States, and Europe, that takes the lead of the United States, and Russia, which is willing to contribute, and all of them will come to Arafat and says, "Be good in your deeds, as you were clear in your declarations," we shall have a cease-fire. We even tried to have a cease-fire piecemeal, going from one city to another city. As you know, I negotiated a cease-fire in Beit Jala, from where they used to shoot at Jerusalem; in Hebron, in Jericho, now in Rafah. And we are telling the Palestinians in a clear language, wherever you will take control, we shall be out and enable you to normalize life. We would like to see the Palestinians out of any suffering. We are not interested in collective punishment.

Q: Minister Peres, regarding the recent incursions in Jenin, Bethlehem and Hebron, Secretary of State Powell has said that he has received assurances from your government that this is going to be only a temporary incursion and at one point there will be redeployments. Could you fill us in a little bit about the message that your government has sent to the United States regarding the recent troop movements, if any such assurances have been made at all?

FM PERES: Hebron is today under the Palestinian jurisdiction. They told us we shall control it militarily, and we said as long as they will control it, we shall be out, and we are out.

We had a cease-fire in Beit Jala, and then the Palestinians renewed the shooting to Jerusalem. They may not be able to stop it. We shall be leaving Beit Jala. The same in Jericho, which is, again, under the Palestinian jurisdiction militarily. And the same goes, hopefully, if the tranquility will continue, in one of the most troublesome places, which is called Rafah, on the southern tip of the Gaza.

Now, there are gangs of terrorists in Ramallah, in Jenin, in Nablus, some other small places. We are telling the Palestinians, "Look, here are the people who are conducting the terror; put them in jail." And again, as I have said, not for punishment but for prevention. We asked them to fight terror.

Let me explain one thing, and very openly. The United States feels that in order to organize the proper coalition, they need tranquility in the Middle East as much as we can, to reduce fire, to reduce the flames. And we understand it. The problem is how to do it. And the only way to do it is to deliver a serious message to Arafat that he has to do what he promised to do. Otherwise, if you shall let Arafat speak in one way and act or prevent actions on the other way, we shall not achieve it. But our purpose is cease-fire. We believe that by a cease-fire, we shall be able to put the train on the rails and have the train moving toward a peaceful negotiation.

Q: Minister Peres, just following up on Eli’s question, it seems to be that you’re saying your message to the administration today and tomorrow, will be, put more pressure on Yasser Arafat to match his words with deeds. Is that what you’re saying? And secondly, will you be asking the administration to make anti-Israeli terror groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad part of their war on terrorism?

FM PERES: I’m not particularly in love with the expression "pressure." But the President of the United States said publicly the other week that they expect the Palestinians to exercise deeds, not only words. And that is our main message. If the United States will, as it can, organize a front of all the people or countries which makes Arafat sensitive to that, not to lose his own legitimacy, I believe it can be achieved. I think if Arafat will do it, he will serve his own people. To date, he endangers their lives by having such a split organization.

Mao Zedong used to say "Let a thousand flowers flourish." That’s okay, but don’t let thousand rifles fire; the results will be different.

Regarding your second question about Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, on the list that the United States has published, there is one gentleman, by the name of Raminiyah. This man is the deputy commander of the Hizbullah. He went right now with the head of the Hizbullah, Nasrallah, to Iran, where they take orders.

There are two lists, one of organizations and the other of people. From the point of view of the organizations, the Hamas and the Jihad are already considered by the United States as terrorist organizations. They are not on the priority list right now. And the message is that they should be put on the priority list, because they really disturb or frustrate the American effort to build a coalition. And by the way, the same goes for the people who do the acts of terror. Maybe there is another list of 10 or 15 – among them, the ones who have assassinated our Minister of Tourism, Mr. Ze’evy.

Q: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch says Israeli soldiers practice torture and maiming of Palestinian civilians, including women and children. Why not stop?

FM PERES: Any act of this nature is against the Israeli law and against the code of the Israeli army. If there are soldiers that do it, they will be put to trial, without any excuse. We shall not support any torture.

We have a problem, and that is the suicide bombers. When you talk about human rights, the first human right is to remain alive, because if you don’t exercise this right, the rest of the rights are not terribly relevant. And you and us, we have exactly the same problem: how to confront or intercept a suicide bomber. The minute he’s on his way, you can’t stop him, because he’s not afraid of policemen, he’s not afraid of soldiers. He’s ready to be killed, so he will explode himself in face of the policemen and soldiers, or in a plane or elsewhere. The only chance or the best chance to intercept him is before he starts moving. Once he’s on his way, it’s too late. So you and us are trying really to prevent the suicide bombers to come to our places.

But torture is against the law in Israel, and if somebody will do it, we will put to trial.

Q: You began your remarks today, sir, saying that people should be allowed to travel, to work, to live freely, and there should be no divisions based on race, ethnicity, and so on. Yet, sir, you’re well aware that Palestinians have lived under closures, travel restrictions for years, not just recently, and Israel’s practiced a legal system of what critics are now calling apartheid and so on. How do you reconcile your rhetoric with the actions?

FM PERES: The answer is very simple. In places where terror is being stopped, life has normalized. I gave the names of four major cities where life is returning to normal. Our problem is how to prevent car bombs or suicide bombers from entering Israel. We are telling the Palestinians: You have a police force that we have helped to build and others have helped even to finance. Use them. Try to prevent it. If you will not do it, we are being left without a choice.

But our real choice – and that is the reason why we have agreed in Oslo to have a Palestinian force – is to do their job. The government has announced that we are ready to facilitate life in the territories unilaterally; we don’t ask for any return.

We don’t look upon it as a punishment, and we are trying all the time to look for ways and means to enable them to move freely and to work. And even now, under the terrible tension, we have introduced many measures to ease life. The minute they will control terror, that minute they will become totally free.

Q: Sir, your government had a policy of what you called targeted killings, political assassinations, and apparently your government killed the head of the PFLP some months ago. Apparently in retaliation, the PFLP killed one of your cabinet members. Will you renounce the policy of political assassination?

FM PERES: Yes, we are against political assassination.

Q: So, will you prosecute the people who conducted that political assassination of the head of the PFLP?

FM PERES: I’m not aware of any case of political assassination.

Q: Do you deny the Israeli government conducted this policy, sir?

FM PERES: No, I distinguished between killing people who are actually, in fact, and personally engaged in carrying bombs, and people who are on the elected level of the Palestinian. This is the difference between political assassination and self-defense.

Q: Mr. Foreign Minister, is the Labor Party planning to pull out of Prime Minister Sharon’s coalition? And do you see this constant shifting of Israeli governments hurting Israel’s chances for resolving the conflict?

FM PERES: Let me answer very openly. A coalition government does not mean that we have joined in the Likud Party, and it doesn’t mean the Likud Party has joined in the Labor Party. We have two separate philosophies, two separate ways. In time of emergency, we are trying to see how far can we go together. But none of us has divulged his position. So I don’t deny that the government has two views and eventually two voices.

By the way, I told Arafat that the difference between us and him is that we have many messages but one rifle; he has one message and many rifles. The nature of democracy is to have one control over arms, but no control over views. And the government is trying to navigate in a very stormy sea where the destination of the two parties is not alike. We are together in the storm; we may be different in the destination.

Q: Sir, are you satisfied with the coalition that’s been built to go after al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden? And also, what response have you gotten from neighboring moderate Arab governments?

FM PERES: Satisfaction will not be the right description, because in politics, you don’t order a la carte; you have to make comparisons among different alternatives. And I believe the war against bin Laden is not a permanent one, but the first dish on the agenda.

I understand, and I think it’s right, that the first act should be to get hold of bin Laden and to get hold of the ones who give him shelter also and bring tragedy on the heads of their own people. And I understand perfectly well that in order to do so, you need the support of some Muslim countries, primarily the Pakistanis. I know it wasn’t simple for the United States, for example, to tell the Indians that right now Pakistan must enjoy special relations. And we know it’s not simple for the Pakistanis either; we can see the demonstrations in the streets against Musharraf.

Now, we are not children. We are not light-minded. As long as we don’t have an alternative, we have to support the alternative which is available, even if you don’t like it. But eventually, there will be no forgiveness to any country, Muslim or otherwise, that cause terror or support terror, directly, indirectly. And as I have said, I believe that this time, the camp against terror will be by far wider than ever before, maybe including Russia, China, India. You know, even the former non-aligned camp is disappearing because you cannot be non-aligned in face of death and terror. And that’s why I said that the differences between East and West and North and South are disappearing. And if you ask me, I don’t regret it that the world is becoming more united and more focused.

Q: My question regards the special envoy to the peace process. I’d like to know how effective and important you think this role is, and if you’ll be encouraging the Bush administration to appoint a new individual to this role.

FM PERES: A special envoy on behalf of the United States of America – I think this is an American decision. I don’t think it’s for me to suggest the administration how to run their own business.

May I say that I have the highest respect for the President, and I think it’s really moving to see the American unity; it’s a great force and a great assurance. And I don’t think that we are the ones that should advise the President and his administration how to conduct their business. We can hardly recommend what we can do or should do, and what the Palestinians can do. And believe me, this is quite an effort.